Penrith coach Ivan Cleary admits he didn’t know if he would see Sam McKendry play again in the NRL after he broke his neck earlier this season.
The New Zealand international prop fractured his C6 vertebrae when tackling Parramatta’s Jacob Loko in April.
The incident occurred in the 15th minute of the match but McKendry continued to play on for a further 10 minutes before coming off after complaining of a tingling sensation in his fingers.
But the 24-year-old made a miraculous return in round 22 against North Queensland after just four months on the sidelines and played a starring role in last Sunday’s vital win over the Warriors in Auckland that kept alive his side’s flickering finals hopes.
Brisbane visit Centrebet Stadium on Friday night just one point ahead of the 12th-placed Panthers, who could potentially move to eighth spot with victory, with McKendry keeping his spot in the starting line-up.
“It’s Sam’s third game back and he will be stronger for the run,” Cleary said.
“I am surprised how well he’s come back, he doesn’t take a backward step and plays the way he always has.
“He’s a pretty tough man both physically and mentally.”
Despite showing all the signs of a full recovery in the gym and in training, Cleary said McKendry’s surgeon was hesitant about granting him clearance to play.
“There were so many things around it, and it was a wait and see factor,” he said.
“But even as close as two weeks ago we weren’t sure.
“The problem with necks is that specialists aren’t going to give you clearance and that could be the end.
“So it was pretty close and we are all relieved as is Sam.”
A pragmatic Cleary said he was delighted with the effort of his players to beat his former club last week, but knows the season will be over if they slip up to a desperate Broncos side.
“Our home form hasn’t been great over the last few weeks and this is a really big game,” he said.
“I think whoever loses is gone really. Auckland was a really tough road trip and the boys did well to come through it.
“The mood has been good this week.”